Summer Camp Talk Getting Personal, Working With Blur Producer Stephen Street on New Album
Amid the bright synths and beaucoup hooks on 'Better Off Without You,' the leadoff track on their 2011 debut, 'Welcome to Condale,' Summer Camp cast a shadow on their sunny-day pop, suggesting their music ought not be taken at face value. "There is no me and you," Elizabeth Sankey sings, and indeed, the people she and bandmate Jeremy Warmsley play on that track -- and throughout 'Condale' -- don't exist. Packaged with a fake scrapbook purportedly made in the titular town, the album was inspired by '80s coming-of-age movies, and for a while, Summer Camp took the conceptual thing a step further, claiming their songs were the work of six Swedish teenagers.
Eventually, the truth got out, and even if Sankey and Warmsley are just a young married British couple with impeccable melodic sense and a thing for John Hughes movies, 'Condale' remains a strange and infectious listen. The album is to the Brat Pack '80s what Lana Del Rey's 'Born to Die' is to golden-age Hollywood, and instead of Lana's sepia-toned pop-noir ballads about the death of the American dream, Summer Camp do New Wave with wistfulness and dread, a wink and a shudder.
Next month, Summer Camp return with their self-titled sophomore effort, a more modern-sounding and personal album they recorded with Stephen Street, the legendary producer behind some of the best-loved albums by the Smiths and Blur, among others. Chatting via Skype with Diffuser.fm, Sankey and Warmsley discussed writing the new album, geeking out with Street in the studio and their plans for the future.
How’s your summer been going so far?
JW & ES: Good!
You’re getting pretty excited about putting out the record this fall, obviously.
ES: Yeah, it’s really cool. The time is finally drawing closer. It was really cool, we put 'Fresh' online a couple weeks ago, and that was the first thing we’ve done for the album, so that was really exciting. It’s just nice to be moving with it.
One thing that's interesting about this record is, and you’ve probably been asked this a ton...
JW: This is actually the second interview we’ve done for it.
Glad we can ask these questions before they get super stale. It's interesting you guys did the concept album on the first record, and you’re now going to the more straightforward route. Usually, it's the other way around.
ES: The first album, we were just sort of playing all of our influences right up front and in a way it was quite naïve of us, I think. But I’m also really pleased we did it. We just wanted almost hide behind a big something for the first album, whereas the second album, we’re more prepared to be ourselves and to try to write more songs that were more about us and our friends and things like that.
When you’re making you’re first record, you don’t always know if you’re going to make another record. So every idea you had about making a record, you kind of chuck in there, and there’s sort of a desperate hope that means you’re going to come with some kind of incredible masterpiece, you know? Now, we’re a bit more seasoned, a bit more relaxed about it. We can actually concentrate on making a record that is hopefully good in its own merits rather than kind of needs, a sort of clever conceit to make it work. If that makes sense?
On the first one, there was a sense of darkness under the surface, whereas this one seems relatively lighthearted. It doesn’t have that same sort of edge...
ES: I think there is a darkness that is present in all our songs, really. But I think on the first album it was more contrived darkness, where it is on the second album, that we would say that was darkness but it’s more real I guess, more personal.
JW: And maybe it’s not as obvious, on the first record you have a song like 'Nobody Knows You,' which on the surface are quite dark, but on this album, I think the darkness is more … you might notice it on your first couple listens, if that makes sense.
Being a couple, you risk coming across as, “We’re so happy. Look at us!” Is that a hard thing to get around -- seeming cutesy?
JW: That’s definitely something you worry about, and you hope that it doesn’t come across like that. I don’t know…
ES: Yeah I just, I don’t think we worry about that too much to be honest.
ES: The band is sort of separate from like any sort of personal relationships.
You guys collaborate on all the lyrics and music, right?
ES: Yeah, we collaborate on everything.
Have there been times when one of you has brought in a lyric -- especially with this record, which is more personal -- and the other one sort of gets defensive and is like, “Is that about me?”
ES: [laughs] Um no, not really. We’re pretty open with each other…
JW: But if it had happened, we probably wouldn’t tell you.
Oh come on, we’re friends! We’ve been chatting for all of five minutes now.
JW: I can’t think of a time that’s ever happened. There have been times that one of us has brought something in and the person has gone, “That’s terrible!” but that’s not really the same thing.
A lot of critics talked about some of the '80s synth-pop-type influences on that first record, but this one is more modern and dancey. How much of that was a conscious thing going in? Was it a product of working with Stephen Street? How did the sound of the record evolve?
JW: Well, it’s funny, actually. Again, on the first record if you look at the songs, there are quite a few songs on there that really don’t fit that kind of '80s synth-pop thing at all. I’d say 'Nobody Knows You' doesn’t really have much '80s vibe going on at all, or 'Last American Virgin.' I think it’s quite easy to get a picture of what the record sounds like that is maybe informed more by kind of how people talk about it then more what it actually sounds like, if that makes any sense?
JW: I think with this record, going in, the only real thing we is that we wanted it to sound better. Is that a better word? We wanted it to be a more inviting listen. We wanted it to sort of draw you in and from the outset and have sounds that were inviting and warm, rather than on previous records, [where] we’ve kind of been happy to make it sound fun, exciting or cool, but it wouldn’t necessarily sound pleasant, I guess.
So on this record, we just wanted to make something that would sound really … good. [laughs] That was Stephen. Working with Stephen was amazing for that, because we would bring in these fairly scratchy demos, and he would just mix them and make them just sound absolutely beautiful, to my ears anyway … There’s a strong kind of hip-hop drum-loop-sampling aesthetic on this record; a lot of the songs are based around sampled loops. Which is something we did a bit on the previous record but not so much. That, and the fact that we used our drummer William Bowerman, who drums with us live, on a few tracks just means the rhythmic side of it is just a lot more focused than the previous record.
How hard was it to not geek out with Stephen Street and, like, and ask a bunch of Smiths or Blur questions?
JW: I failed. I asked him so many questions ... I think I was just getting detailed breakdowns of how every single Blur song was recorded. Like, which microphones he used, whether they used the same guitars he uses live or whether he uses different ones. I went everywhere with the questions.
Is there a certain record he's made, or a certain sound that he’s known for, that you wanted him to recreate on your record?
JW: I think the great thing with Stephen is that he doesn’t really have a sound. He just takes the sound of the band they’re making and he makes it sound as good as possible. I mean, if you compared [The Smiths'] 'The Queen Is Dead' to, say, the self-titled Blur record, those two records don’t have a lot of sonic similarities you know?
JW: He’s great with songs as well. He had a lot of great suggestions; especially on the track 'Crazy.' A lot of cool stuff came out of working with him on that one. In the studio, he’s just amazing. He’s so focused, and every move he makes makes the song sound better. He spends a lot of time thinking about every move, so sometimes it goes quite slowly. Us in the studio, we like get it down get it done -- just move on to the next thing as quickly as possible. Whereas he actually takes his time. That was really good for us to see as well.
You were talking before about how the press picks up on these ideas, and that becomes more the basis for how people think about a record than the music itself. ‘Condale’ was pegged as an homage to John Hughes movies, and along those lines, if that was a John Hughes movie, what's this record's movie equivalent?
ES: Um, I don’t know. A biopic, Jeremy says [laughs]. I think that we … I don’t know, what would you say?
JW: Yeah, I guess the idea we went in with this record was we were trying to write songs about ourselves and the people we know, make it kind of vaguely real. So I guess it wouldn’t really be a film it would be more like a…
JW: Yeah, it would be a documentary [laughs] about this super lame band [laughs] ... Who think about themselves constantly.
Next time out, would you do another conceptual-type thing, or are there more stories to tell about yourselves? Obviously, there are always more to tell about yourself, but…
JW: Right now, we’re working on a soundtrack for a film, in fact, which is a film about teen movies, so you can imagine where the soundtrack is going with that. That’s obviously leaning back towards the ‘Condale’ stuff, but I think the next record … it’s hard to say.
ES: I think you have to go nuts on your third record. You have to do things that are really strange and have to try and really push it, and so that’s what we wanted to do. We were already talking about what we’re going to do on the third record, ‘cause you just have to keep writing and writing.
Yeah, your third album is the one where you go hole up on an island somewhere and like spend all the money you have...
ES: I like the sound of the island.
JW: Yeah, great. Can you actually book it for us?
Sure, I’ll use my infinite Diffuser resources [laughs]. Speaking of this upcoming film about teen movies, what’s your favorite teen movie soundtrack? Or more specifically, what's your favorite John Hughes soundtrack?
ES: I guess probably ‘Pretty in Pink.' I think the music for that was really well chosen.